As businesses become more international, so must our writing. Most of the time, good business writing skills transfer very well to global audiences, but there are some things that you want to keep in mind about intercultural relations. Lots of research has been done on this topic, so I’ll include links for further reading.
I am hesitant to add in examples because they may not be true even five years from now - I have seen so much change in the time that I have been teaching! With that said, I will add in some examples to make these concepts clearer.
Do your research on honorifics and attitudes towards hierarchy
The way that we show respect to our superiors and our coworkers varies dramatically across cultures.
From the outside, the U.S. looks like it has a fairly casual and egalitarian work structure. For example:
- We are comfortable working on teams and in groups with people older and younger than us, and with more and less seniority.
- We tend to address people the same way throughout an organization. We would say, “Good morning, John!” to the boss and to the janitor.
- Eye contact is a sign that we are paying attention to someone, i.e. that we respect them enough to listen to them.
You may be interested in our English Business Writing Course for non-native writers (ESL).
This is not the case in many other cultures/countries. In some places, hierarchy, class, status, and rank are very important, and they require you to act and speak very differently depending on the content. For example:
- Japanese culture is a good example of this. The language itself requires different grammatical structures, and sometimes completely different words, depending on the hierarchical relationship between the speaker(s) and the listener(s). These grammatical differences reflect the cultural attitudes towards hierarchy and status.
- Indian culture is similarly stratified. It is often inappropriate for a lower level worker to speak or work with more senior employees.
- In many parts of Latin America, it is (or was!) socially inappropriate to make eye contact with your superior.
Use the key words “honorifics + country name” or “attitudes towards hierarchy + country name” to do a bit of research when starting a new project with a global group. This could avoid a lot of problematic misconceptions about your team mates and how they are responding to you!
Be flexible in how you think about time management
Ideas about time are tied to culture. It could be the culture of your particular workplace, or the culture of the larger society, but how we think about time varies dramatically.
- Some places value how many hours you work, while others value how much work you complete in those hours, and still others are a mix of the two.
- Some places value making decisions quickly, while others put much more time into making a decision.
- Some places see due dates and start times as if they are absolute, while others see them as if they are flexible suggestions.
These are often cultural differences, but they can vary widely across work places. (I work in higher ed, and the decision making process is painfully slow compared with the private sector places I worked before!) It’s important to remember that a missed deadline may not be due to laziness, but a difference of opinions about what deadlines actually mean.
If you find yourself getting frustrated with your global team, take a deep breath and do some research on time management and decision making. Use the key words above, as well as attitudes about time, + country name. Doing this before a meeting or project begins can prevent a lot of frustration.
Honor ideas about change
Depending on where you work, ideas about change can vary widely, even within the U.S. For example:
- Some cultures or workplaces value innovation and new ideas. This attitude is common in the U.S.
- Other places value and respect tradition and the time-tested ways of doing things. This attitude is more commonly found in places with more hierarchical societies.
Clearly, a group with different ideas about change will have difficulty finding a suitable solution! Finding a middle ground that values the traditional approach while allowing for innovation is tricky, but invaluable when working with global teams. This could be as simple as acknowledging that the current innovation wouldn’t be possible without the groundwork laid by the traditional approach.
Write simply, but powerfully
We've written several other blog posts on how to improve your business writing skills, but the overall message is this:
- Write simply and directly.
- Do not use colloquialisms, idioms, highly technical language, or complicated grammatical structures.
- Use lists and headings to help break up content and make it easy for the reader to know what to do. (like I am doing here!)
- Do not rely on implicit messages, or something mentioned in a meeting or previous email.
- Say everything you need to say clearly, directly, and in language that someone outside of your field could understand.
A combination of straightforward written communications and consideration for cultural differences will greatly improve your business communications, increase effectiveness, and save time. Instructional Solutions offers Business Writing Courses that can help you to achieve this type of writing. More info here: